“Breathing is painful because my chest is so heavy and tight. It hurts!” she cries, holding onto her chest. “I’m so tired. I’m so tired.”
Most of us can relate to my client’s experience. Sadness and worry that stays with us for weeks. That nagging feeling that something’s not right and an overwhelming urge to no longer feel this way.
“It feels like there’s a weight in my chest.”
A therapist can feel weary of which route to take when a client feels they’re really low. It can be tempting to rush through it, to give the client something they can take away that feels good.
This would be doing our clients a disservice. The client’s all too good at dismissing these emotions in herself – that’s why they won’t give her a break. If I were to rush to the happy, positive sides of her life, I’d leave her alone in her experience. I’d implicitly communicate that these troubling emotions are too scary to handle, and she wouldn’t be able to grow through her struggle.
“Tell me about this heaviness in your chest. What colour is it?”
“What does it look like?”
“It’s like a long horizontal oval.” She says, as she draws an elongated oval across her chest with her hands. “Like a boat.”
She goes silent and slumps back into the sofa. She looks away and covers her face with her hand.
“What’s happening now?” I ask.
She starts to cry and looks as though she can’t speak. She is choking on her words through the intensity of sorrow she feels. She wipes away her ever-flowing tears. She does not look at me.
“Jane*, can you stay with me?”
She glimpses at me. She knows what I am asking for.
“You don’t have to stay alone in your pain. Do you want to share it with me?”
“Yes”, she whispers, looking up into my eyes, then quickly looks away again. She wipes more tears from her face before her eyes meet mine.
“I can see how painful this is for you.”
“I just want it to stop. I wish it would stop.”
In the past, taking our emotions into consideration was thought to be a self-indulgent waste of time. Although we now know that emotional awareness is part of a healthy lifestyle, many of us feel weary to allow ourselves to really experience our emotions. We may fear that we won’t be able to control them once they are unboxed.
The paradox is that when we don’t acknowledge our emotions, we waste a lot of energy trying to push them out of our awareness. This energy-drain makes us less able to think clearly and to come up with creative solutions to our situations.
“Obstacles are detours in the right direction”
– Gabby Bernstein
Like in the example above, in Gestalt therapy, we sometimes guide the client to locate the physical sensations of emotion in their body. We help them to visualise the sensation by giving it a colour or a shape.
My client was experiencing burn out. Even though she appeared happy to everyone around her, daily living had become exhausting and extremely stressful. Through our sensation-exploring exercise, Jane was able to allow herself to fully experience the great sadness, emptiness and confusion that had been nagging at her for weeks. Of course she felt this way; she had been running on overdrive for so long that she had no time to care for herself. By giving herself space, Jane’s emotions went from being obstacles to being valuable sources of information.
The Importance of Support
If your emotional experiences sometimes take you to a very dark place, I invite you to allow yourself to experience them when you are in the presence of someone you trust. Choose someone who will give you the space to express yourself and who can handle that level of emotional distress.
Staying with unpleasant emotions can be energy intensive until you get used to the process. So, support yourself with nourishing activities. Make sure you do not constantly work on your emotional experiences. Go to the movies, focus on your work, talk to a friend about your favourite recipes at the moment. Complement the heaviness with lightness.
Getting used to processing our emotions takes work, but it is so worth it. When we stop wasting energy on running away from ourselves, we can direct it toward understanding our situations and our next steps become clearer.
*Name of client has been changed for confidentiality.
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